Transit the smart thing on U. campus

Riders » A third of students, workers take bus or train.
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The University of Utah's transit ridership spiked during last year's gasoline price hikes and remains higher than a year ago despite the return of cheap gas, officials say.

A third of the 39,000 students and employees now ride buses or light rail to campus, according to U. Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services Norm Chambers. That's up from 30 percent a year ago, but off from the 36 percent peak during the days of $4-a-gallon gas.

It's also double the 6,500 who rode buses to campus before TRAX trains first climbed the hill in 2001. The U. credits a subsidy program with boosting ridership from just 1,500 who took buses when it began in 1991.

"It's really gone a long ways toward encouraging people to leave their cars," Chambers said.

The U.'s ridership wave is outpacing the Utah Transit Authority's changes. Weekday ridership on all TRAX trains and buses in November grew by less than 7 percent apiece from November 2007, to 45,000 and 88,000, respectively, according to UTA. The monthlong total bus ridership, including weekends, actually dipped by nearly a percent from one November to the next, while the total number of TRAX rides was up just 0.36 percent.

That's a big change from October, when fuel prices started dropping and both buses and trains continued to post double-digit ridership gains.

At the U., though, ridership remains about 11 percent ahead of a year ago, Chambers said, after leaping ahead by 20 percent in the fall.

That's important on a commuter campus that once saw most students and workers circling the lots looking for parking spaces. Building new parking structures on the unstable soils next to the Wasatch Mountains costs $20,000 a parking space. Administrators dipped into student fees to help pay for transit instead.

The subsidy is significant for individuals who choose to ride. All students taking 12 credit hours pay $24.16 per semester toward the transit fund, which the U. then pays to UTA. That's about $50 less than other riders pay for just a month of rides. The university subsidizes employees under a separate formula.

Others who drive to campus still get a benefit from their transit fees, Chambers said.

"Parking availability is better than it would have been" without mass transit, Chamber said. In fact, there typically are up to 3,000 vacant spaces at the U. these days, compared to just 450 before TRAX reached campus.

Hitching a ride to the U.

» January 2008: 11,700 riders

» August 2008: 14,000 riders

» December 2008: 13,000 riders